When Cleo sustained the injury that would end her career and, as of today, her life, my vet, Dr. Kent Allen, told me that the average time from diagnosis to euthanasia was two years. That was the summer of 2009. Cleo was never one to go down without a fight.
But I won't know whether she'll take euthanasia easily, because I won't be there.
The time to accept this reality has been an incredible gift, and so the pain is not so terrible as it would be if the news had been sudden, unexpected. A misstep in the pasture. A trailering accident. The colic that won't resolve. I've had four years to adjust to the idea of a life with no big gray mare in it.
And it's been an even easier adjustment since I placed Cleo with my incredible aunt, Jane, sitting next to me at Christmas dinner, passing me the cranberry sauce as I told her of my commitment to all my horses, whether they could do the jobs I asked of them or not. This is the job - to be their voice, their advocate, their guardian angel, even if you're 25 and just getting your financial feet under you.
"I'll take her," she told me. I thought she was kidding, but I dropped Cleo off a few days later, and then left for my first winter in Florida.
And then the foals were born, and business took off. I visited Cleo twice, and found it both reassuring and frustrating - reassuring in that she was clearly so happy, receiving such excellent care, but frustrating because she was My Big Horse. We were just getting good the day the suspensories broke down, when another visiting relative's dogs decided to chase us down, and Cleo did what she did - she fought for me. By kicking backwards. And something gave way.
In our time together, Cleo built me quite a resume. Regional Champion, CDI winner, USEF Developing Rider List, a win at the National Championships. Ribbons and accolades, articles and press. She taught me patience. She taught me about connection, half-steps and every trick for keeping a white tail white. She made a half-recovery from the injury, giving a few months to my mom, whose own schoolmaster I'd had to bury just a few years before after the Tragic Pasture Accident, on the phone to her in Europe on one of the last beautiful afternoons of the year, the horse bleeding and remarkably calm, accepting his fate while I was telling a tearful her that there was No Other Option.
I've seen it. I've been the strong one, for my mom, for clients. I've stroked the forelocks as the pink liquid stops their hearts and sends them to wherever it is that horses go after they've run out of gifts to give us.
And that's not how I want to remember Cleo, fat and cheerful and irrevocably broken.
I want to remember the firey spirit that lived for awards ceremonies, that loaded herself on the trailer with a big leap, that made me feel like a princess on a unicorn, that wouldn't stop doing the ones that day when she first really got them, that forgave me, that nurtured me, that only said no to me when it was a character building experience, that pressed her neck to the bars of her stall for a scratch, that would splash in the pond but not swim (too undignified), that gave me two beautiful daughters to achieve the things we did not.
That big gray mare will not have me at her side when she passes on, to join the son of hers I bade fairwell to just last summer, also from afar. I suppose it might be because I'm not strong enough. I hope she'll understand.
But she'll never leave me.